Into the Wild, Into the World: David Almond’s Island

British author David Almond has spent his career writing books for children and young adults that explore the idea of wildness.  Sometimes it is the wildness outside the main character, such as in the much-lauded 1998 novel Skellig.  Sometimes it is the wilderness and the ancient myths called forth by landscape, as in the 2014 A Song for Ella Grey which retells Orpheus and Eurydice along the Bamburgh dunes.  Sometimes it is the wildness within a character, as in the 2008 graphic novel, created with illustrator Dave McKean, The Savage.  The idea of the wild and untamed is, Almond’s novels suggest, a part of all of us as well as all that surrounds us; understanding it can give us insight into our pain and accepting it can often help us heal what is broken.

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Almond’s books connect young people with an ancient wildness, inside and outside of themselves.

Knowing about Almond’s focus on the wild is important for understanding his recent novella, Island (Hodder, 2017).  Island was a £1 World Book Day selection in the UK, meaning that the book is sold for a single pound, until it is out of print, and school children in the UK can use their National Book Token to get it for free.  World Book Day is connected with UNESCO; however, the British celebration is not a government initiative but a charity, and therefore reliant on the generous support of authors and publishers who are willing to participate (you can read more about it here: http://www.worldbookday.com/about/).  The books this year, like the shortlisted books for the Carnegie Medal, were all written by white authors, something I (and others—see http://forreadingaddicts.co.uk/childrens-literature/world-book-day-2017-selections-criticism/13835 for a summary) complained about (in this particular moment, when there are so many great writers of colour in the UK, it seemed absurd that not one was asked to write for this celebration).  I doubt it had anything to do with me, but I do want to point out that since the announcement of the selections and resulting criticism, the World Book Day website has highlighted several books with diverse authors and characters.

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Almond’s Island was a 2017 World Book Day selection.

However, the lack of diversity in authors made me even keener to read Almond’s selection.  In addition to admiring Almond’s dreamlike prose, and having had my own personal pilgrimage to the book’s setting of Lindisfarne (Northumbria’s Holy Island), I was curious to see how Almond would develop the character of Hassan, a boy from Syria.  His initial appearance in the novella comes as white British Louise, through whom the novel is focalized, is traveling with her father to Lindisfarne, an island only reachable by a causeway in low tide.  Louise and her father travel to the Holy Island every year to remember Louise’s mother, now dead, and the happy times they had as a family there.  The island, therefore, is both wild and familiar to Louise, and—as with the wild in Almond’s other books—represents a place where she can connect with her past and heal her pain in the beauty of nature.  “We’ve been coming here every year, ever since Mum died.  It’s a holiday that’s also a pilgrimage, a journey into the beautiful past” (6), Louise says.

The boy they pass on the causeway seems to be an intrusion into this beautiful past; Louise’s father instantly labels the boy an outsider (“doesn’t look like he comes from here, does he?” he says on page eight) and refuses to offer him a ride or any other assistance.  Strangers, for Louise’s father, are dangerous.  He tells her, “The world’s going through some very dark days.  You’ve got to be careful” (10).  Louise has a more sympathetic view of the boy, but she nonetheless also describes him in terms of otherness; she writes in her journal that “He comes from nothing, from nowhere” and “He seems to be walking from a dream . . . I think he might be very beautiful” (16).  Beauty is not entirely redeeming for Louise, because she concludes her journal entry by saying, “I think he might be terrifying” (17).  It is no coincidence that both Louise and her father connect the boy with terror, since it turns out that the boy—Hassan—is from Syria.  Almond constantly exposes the orientalist ideas that white British people have about Syrians; Hassan even exploits these ideas by performing magic tricks for tourists’ money.  Hassan tells them that in Syria, “I perform, with the snake charmers and the acrobats and the singers and the storytellers” (73); Almond says that the tourists are “entranced by him . . . they want to be entranced by him” (73).  This is the acceptable version of the mysterious East, but more troublesome versions of the stereotype—the terrorist and the refugee—are also lurking.  Hassan asks Louise if she thinks of him as a refugee and the question “embarrasses” her because she “doesn’t know” the answer (59).  Hassan questions Louise’s father’s new girlfriend directly as well: “Do you think I am one of those people? Because of Syria and my skin.  That I was in London with my knife? That I am a terrorist come to Lindisfarne with dreams of slaughter?” (85-86).  Almond’s island is a microcosm of white British (and American—Louise’s father’s girlfriend is from Missouri) attitudes toward Syrians and Middle Easterners

But Almond also shows us—literally—a different picture.  Two different pictures, in fact.  One is Louise’s childhood drawing, still preserved, in the upside-down boat which has been turned into a shed that comes with the cottage they return to every year.  Louise looks for the drawing upon her arrival, “the pencil drawing I made when I was four, the three of us in an upside-down boat surrounded by moons and stars . . . Dad calls it my cave painting, created in a distant past, at the very birth of the world” (18).  This “cave painting,” connecting Louise with wildness, contrasts with Hassan’s very modern picture—a photograph that he shows her, evidence that Syrians too are connected with Lindisfarne.  The photographer, Hassan’s father, took the picture of Louise and her parents years ago.  Hassan’s pilgrimage is to a place that he, like Louise, belongs to, its wild and civilized parts, its modern and its ancient.  In typical poetic fashion, Almond breaks down stereotypes and connects humanity through the timelessness of nature.  At the end of the book Louise kisses Hassan, at the same time imagining, not just herself in the upside-down boat, but “all of us . . . all the living and the dead, all carried upside down through the astounding stars” (119).  Island is a hopeful small book that takes readers into the wild—and into the diverse and astounding world.

It Takes Allsorts, Maybe: Literary Annuals and Who Belongs

I’ve been back at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book, over the past few weeks doing some work with digital archiving and preparing for a symposium on diversity for November.  It’s impossible to be at Seven Stories without being distracted by the Aladdin’s Cave of material there, and while looking for something else I found myself in the collection of annuals donated by the children’s author and children’s literature critic, Victor Watson.  I love old annuals; the time capsule of binding up the “best” of a magazine’s year and the often-unlikely hodge-podge of comics, stories, puzzles and pictures fascinates both the historian and the philologist in me.  When faced with the hundreds of annuals donated by Watson, I knew I had to get out of the stacks quickly, before I disappeared for days in their pages and possibly got squished by the movable shelving when the Seven Stories staff forgot I was there (a fitting, but bitter end for a children’s literature academic).

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The first volume of Thwaite’s Allsorts, an annual supposedly filled with “real” writing. Cover by Jenny Williams.

So, seeing a small run of annuals at the very beginning of the very first shelf, I decided I would just look at those, and I took the seven volumes of Allsorts back to my desk. Allsorts, it turns out, was not your ordinary annual.  The editor was no Fleet Street hack but Ann Thwaite, the biographer of children’s authors A. A. Milne and Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Thwaite got the idea for the annuals when she was living in Libya and, according to the book jacket for the second volume, “found it difficult to obtain books for her children other than the annuals which she (and her children) found lacking in nourishment. ‘Why shouldn’t there be an annual containing some real writing?’ she argued” (back book jacket flap).

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Thwaite’s Annuals appeared about the same time as the Puffin Annuals, which also aimed at a middle-class white audience.

I have to confess I almost put them back right then.  Having spent a year researching publishers and editors, many of whom had somewhat rose-coloured ideas about children and the middle class lifestyle in which all those children apparently lived, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what Thwaite saw as “real” writing.  (I also wanted to interview her kids to see if they would REALLY agree with their jacket flap’s parenthetical reference to them.) It is interesting to compare these to the Puffin annuals, which came out about the same time; both have a decidedly middle-class audience in mind, and both are very clearly aimed at a white British audience.

As annuals, Allsorts are very wordy; there are a couple of comics in the first one (by David Hornsby—who is not listed as one of the “writers” in the back) but these have gone by Allsorts 3.  They include writers like Catherine Storr, Penelope Farmer and Joan Aiken.  They are pitched at 8-year-olds; I say this because there is a regular feature, “The Year I was Eight,” where authors write about their own experiences of being eight.  This is one of the few times that racial diversity is present in the annuals; in Allsorts 1, the very first of these is by Edward Lucie-Smith, the Jamaican-born poet who brought poets Brian Patten, Adrian Henri, and Roger McGough to prominence in The Liverpool Scene.  Lucie-Smith is white, but he describes Black Jamaicans: “The back yard and the back of the house were also the domain of the servants.  We weren’t very rich, but coloured servants were cheap and we had three living in: my nurse, a fat cook, and a thin parlour-maid” (19).  These servants are never given names, and are described right after the animals who live in Lucie-Smith’s house.  Similarly, after being sent to boarding school, Lucie-Smith writes that “On Sundays the roads around [the school] were full of country people going to church –black faces, and stiffly starched white or pink dresses amid the greenery” (23).  The Black Jamaicans become part of Lucie-Smith’s scenery, no different from the flora and fauna.  His story is followed by two more “The Year I was Eight” stories, one by Zulfikar Ghose, from Bombay, and one by Peter Porter, from Australia.  The rest of these stories in the other volumes are all by white and mostly English authors (including Penelope Farmer and Ann Thwaite herself).

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Sleeping with the enemy: Plucky British schoolgirls take being hijacked in their stride. Glenys Ambrus illustrated “Hijacked.”

The remaining volumes carry on in fairly similar fashion.  Number 2 (1969) has a story called “The Sounds of Cricket” by Zulfikar Ghose about cricket in Pakistan, and that’s about it.  Allsorts 4 has the most curious story, “Hijacked” written by 2 of the 31 children who were hijacked and held as hostages in Jordan by the PLO in 1970.  The illustrations, by Glenys (wife of Victor) Ambrus, are very scary—people in Arabic dress with guns standing over white children in school uniforms.  If this story had been published a hundred years earlier in Girls Own Paper, it likely would have involved the words “plucky British schoolgirls”—but then, Girls Own may or may not have been classified as “real writing.”

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C is for Cannibal with a bone through his hair in Allsorts 5.

Edward Lucie-Smith tells an Anansi story in play form in Allsorts 5, which although not written in patois (as the Black Jamaican poet Louise Bennett was already doing by this time) at least was not written in a white person’s IDEA of patois.  It seems like a progressive step, but this volume also has a puzzle picture, illustrated by Linda Birch, that includes a cannibal with a bone through his hair.

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There are slight changes to Allsorts by the time it gets to volume 7–including one Black British girl playing basketball, way in the back of the cover.

The cover to Allsorts 6 (1973) is the first to have any non-white children on it, and includes a story (with recipe!) called “Chitra Makes a Curry” written by Ursula Sharma and illustrated by Felicity Bartlett, and also “The Year I Was Seven: Stepmothers in Hong Kong” is by Man Wah Leung and illustrated by Sally Kindberg.  Allsorts 7 (1974), which also has a multiracial cover (the covers are all by Jenny Williams) has a story called “Tell Me Truth” by Janet Hitchman and illustrated by Alexy Pendle, which I think is about the expulsion of Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, but there’s no clear information, so, like the child-authored “Hijacked” in volume 4, the story comes across as some kind of vague refugee adventure in which the white British (of course) are the heroes: at one point, the main character’s father says, “it was no wonder the English had conquered the world: such suffering [of having a cold] made them all heroes without even trying!” (150).  This line, clearly meant to be taken ironically by the (white?) readers, nonetheless reinforces the ideas that A) England DID conquer the world and B) the people of the (formerly) colonized world see this as quite reasonable.   Allsorts may have been more “literary” than, say, the Enid Blyton annuals coming out at the time, but at the end of the day, these annuals continued to reproduce white privilege.  All sorts are allowed to be a part of children’s literature—as long as they are “our” sort of all sorts.

And the Ship Sails On: The Sea and the Racialized Other in Children’s Literature

In Federico Fellini’s 1983 film, And the Ship Sails On, all the pretty (and not so pretty, but rich) people of society are gathered on a luxury ocean liner to scatter the ashes of a famous opera singer; their memorial is interrupted by some refugees that the captain brings on the ship’s deck. The society doyennes believe that the refugees are terrorists, and demand that they be isolated. When another ship demands the refugees be returned, the captain agrees—but one of the refugees hurls a bomb at the other ship, causing it to open fire on the luxury liner. The liner sinks while the orchestra plays and the cinema projectionist watches film clips of the dead opera singer saying goodbye at the end of a concert.

This is a very brief summary of Fellini’s brilliant satire (among other things, it ignores the love-sick rhinoceros) but I wanted to include it for any of my blog readers who haven’t seen it. Despite the film being set in 1914, and concerning Austro-Hungarian aggression, I was reminded of Fellini’s film this past weekend when, at the BAMEed 2017 conference in Birmingham, I listened to Darren Chetty’s talk on education and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people. Chetty commented that Britain’s education rhetoric is often expressed in nautical terms—running a tight ship, for example—and he wondered if this was a hangover of Empire, when “Britannia Ruled the Waves”. I would go so far as to suggest that it is not just education that suffers from this hangover, but government rhetoric in general. By recalling an imperial past, Britain not only recalls its days as global superpower, but racializes the discourse. White people sail and run tight ships. Racialized others are refugees to be rescued, or impediments to the success of the mission. Or terrorists.

This can be seen throughout British children’s literature. In days when Britain thrived as a seafaring nation, primarily due to the slave trade, the hierarchy was obvious, with white sailors on deck and African slaves in the ship’s bowels. But even as slavery was abolished, children’s books continued to highlight the global inequality Britain had helped create through the presentation of racialized situations. Michael Scott’s Cruise of the Midge (Collins 1895), for example, has sailors rescuing two West Indians when their canoe gets in trouble. The illustrations, by WS Stacey, show an angry West Indian man, dressed in rags, preparing to smash an idol which was meant to bring him luck, while well-dressed sailors do nothing to alleviate his distress but stand around and look amused. Clearly, they would never be superstitious enough to believe in idols and “luck”, like West Indians, and so they would never end up in rags and rage on someone else’s ship.

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Britons rule the waves, while racialized others foolishly depend on superstition to keep them safe from the sea. WS Stacey’s illustration from Michael Scott’s Cruise of the Midge.

During the 1920s, Britain’s empire was at its largest, but was also beginning to face the rumblings of independence movements throughout the colonies. British children’s literature during this period was filled with children (and water-rats and moles) “messing about in boats”. As Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons children’s father says, “Better drowned than duffers.” The white British child was now in charge of ruling the waves, as this cover from the children’s magazine Fairyland Tales from 1925 indicates, and they, like the sailors in The Cruise of the Midge, find it amusing to leave the racialized other—in this instance a caricatured toy version of a racialized other, further indicating their position on top of the racial hierarchy—in a precarious position. Britain continued to enjoy its position of privilege without regard to how the rest of the world was affected by its assumption of control.

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The Non-Stop Boat of British racial imperialism carries on.

It might be argued that this is not, in fact, a racial issue; that Britain’s (idea of) control over the seas extended to other European countries and often America as well. But it is important to look at how white Britons are placed in comparison with not-white others in children’s literature to understand the way that the trope of British control over the seas becomes naturalized and normalized. In 1953, for example, Alice Berry-Hart published To School in the Spanish Main (Puffin), a WWII story about British children sent to the Caribbean to sit out the war. Rather than being portrayed as war refugees, welcomed in by Black Caribbean foster families (as so many evacuee stories set in England show white British families doing), the children are portrayed as being on an extended holiday, even when they have to deal with German spy ships. The Caribbean islanders are portrayed as incidental to the action. Britain still owns the Caribbean, and even as technical refugees they rule the waves.

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You don’t have to live like a refugee–at least not if you’re white. Richard Kennedy illustrated the cover.

Now that Britain is no longer a naval—or any other kind of—superpower, however, the rhetoric has shifted. The language of ships, as Darren Chetty points out, is still used to demonstrate white British need for control. But in children’s books now, the control is over the land and borders. White people can isolate racialized others on islands, as in Kiran Millwood-Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything. The sea segregates “us” from “them”. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s The Lines We Cross (Scholastic 2017) is set in Australia, but demonstrates a similar rhetoric. White people (who first came to Australia by sea as British colonizers) “own” the land. The main white character, Michael Blainey, is the son of the founder of “Aussie Values” which tries to “Turn Back the Boats” (1) of refugees. “Australia has the right to protect its borders” (35), Michael comments, and, “There has to be a limit [to immigration] or we’ll be flooded” (71; there is no irony displayed in any of this rhetoric because “Aussies”–whites–are not immigrants and have a right to the land). Mina, a “boat person” refugee from Afghanistan, is not buying his attitude, and calls it racist: “Is it all immigration, or just Muslim immigration?” (170) she asks him. Michael argues that he’s not racist, and that “we don’t have a choice who we’re born to, or where” (219), but Mina counters, “You want me to make it easier for you to confront your privilege because God knows even antiracism has to be done to make the majority comfortable” (219).

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Although Michael and Mina eventually work through their personal differences, The Lines We Cross never resolves the larger societal issues, and one of the later images in the book returns to a nautical image to describe Mina’s family’s position in Australia: “It’s like we never left the boat. Ten years on and we’re still on deck, being rocked and swayed, coming closer to the rocks and then pulling back, smashing against the waves” (345). Racism continues to pervade society, but we would do well to remember that, as with Fellini’s film, we are all in the same boat—and if we let racism sink it, it will sink us all.

 

At the End of Everything is Something New: Recent Releases in BAME Lit for Children

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The latest from Alex Wheatle and Kiran Millwood Hargrave are very different–and share many similarities as well.

I have been terribly anxious for my term to end in the US–not just for the ordinary reasons (exam time does not exactly reveal anyone at their best, most cheerful self)–but because, nearly as soon as it did, I hopped on a plane for several weeks in the UK.  And I went straight to the bookstore.

One of the curious things about American publishing (not to mention American television, American film stars–I’m talking to you, Samuel L. Jackson–and other elements of the American cultural world) is that, if they recognize that there is such a thing as a BAME British writer (tv star, film star, whatever), they do not think their work is relevant to Americans.  This is similar to the way that white British publishing often acts as though BAME lit is only for BAME readers, despite the phenomenal success of writers such as Zadie Smith or Malorie Blackman (just to name two of many). When I am in the US, I can get the work of BAME writers, but generally by special order from the UK, which is expensive–or slow.  So when I’m in the UK, I stock up.

And I’d been especially impatient to read two recent releases by 2016 award-winning authors, Alex Wheatle’s latest installment in the Crongton series, Straight Outta Crongton (London: Atom Press, 2017) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything (Somerset: Chicken House, 2017).  On the face of it, these books could not be more different.  Alex Wheatle’s series, including this latest, concerns the lives of young urban Britons growing up on a fictional estate plagued by gang warfare aimed at the young adult market.  Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel is a fictional account for older middle grade readers of a real island in the Philippines where people with leprosy were sent in order to try and eradicate the disease.

But despite this surface-level contrast, the two books actually have some important things in common.  Most obviously, they are both focalized through female protagonists, and feature mother-daughter relationships as critical elements of their plots. Wheatle’s Mo Baker has a troubled relationship with her mother–or rather, with her mother’s choice of male company.  Things get bad enough that Mo eventually leaves to stay with friends.  Millwood Hargrave’s Amihan Tala adores her mother–or Nanay, the Tagalog word for mother–but she too leaves home, by force, because government officials decide to segregate people with leprosy (Nanay) from people without (Amihan), even if this means separating families.  Each girl experiences an eventual reunion with her mother, but in both cases the reunion is (or in Mo’s case, appears at the end of the book to be) temporary.

During their separation from their mothers, both Mo and Ami get strength from female friends.  Indeed, the importance of the connection between girls is a major theme in both these novels.  Mo’s friends support her by taking her in (even when the adults involve demur, Mo’s friend Elaine insists that she be able to stay with them), by not allowing Mo to accept an apology from her mother’s boyfriend after he physically abused her and instead trying to get her to report him to the police, and by accompanying her on a dangerous mission of revenge.  Ami’s friend Mari also accompanies her on a dangerous mission, to escape the orphanage–and island–where she has been sent and get back to her Nanay.  Neither Mo’s nor Ami’s mission results in an entirely happy conclusion.  But it is their female friends who help them get through their trials alive, and with a deeper understanding of the complicated actions and emotions of the adults around them.

As you may be able to tell from this brief description of the novels, ‘race,’ racism, racial politics are not the focus of the books, though these things are not entirely absent from them either.  Wheatle’s Mo is white, and her boyfriend Sam is Black.  They have known each other since childhood, when even then they had an awareness that race mattered, at least to older people.  They play a trick on a social worker who comes to visit Sam’s mother, telling her that they were “the first black and white twins born in the country” (78).  But at the end of the day, what matters more to Mo and her friends is that they share a common language and experience, united by the good and bad things about Crongton–which in many ways is as much of an isolated island for them as Culion and Coron are for Ami in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s book. The Island at the End of Everything does highlight the difference of skin color: Ami’s friend Mari is “paler than the others, paler than any of us, her hair light and flyaway, making a halo around her head” (94).  Later Ami learns the pale skin comes from Mari’s being half-Spanish.  Mari’s background is not insignificant, but what matters more to her relationship with Ami is that they are both in an orphanage under the thumb of a tyrannical government official.

And this is one more thing that The Island at the End of Everything has in common with Straight Outta Crongton.  Both novels view the government as unhelpful, sometimes unkind, and always untrustworthy.  Mo Baker mistrusts “the feds” enough so that she does not turn to them for help when she really needs it.  Ami Tala experiences the consequences of a well-intentioned government policy (few would argue with the eradication of leprosy as a good goal) that disregards the human cost of separating families.  Both heroines ultimately accept the authority of that government–after they defy the dehumanized government to connect with people they love.

Wheatle and Millwood Hargrave have written novels that are departures from the one(s) that came before.  Wheatle’s earlier Crongton novels are focalized through male protagonists, and Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars is a fantasy. The reason that these authors matter so much right now is patently not because they have one story, “the” BAME story.  These novelists prove that there is no such thing as a single BAME story–no such thing as a single Wheatle story or a single Millwood Hargrave story.  At the end of everything is the start of something new.  And now that I’ve finished these novels, I can’t wait for the next ones.

We Didn’t Win to Have You Here: Activism after Victories in Children’s Lit

Yesterday, French voters went to the polls, and much of the rest of the world watched to see if France would go the way of the US and the UK—that is, toward increasingly isolationist, authoritarian, anti-immigrant governments.  In the end, the majority of voters rejected Marine Le Pen’s ultra-right views, electing Emmanuel Macron instead.  Macron is emphatically described as a centrist in just about every news profile of him; an investment banker who worked as economy minister for the socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Macron is pledging to fight “the forces of division that undermine France” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39841707).  But he has never been elected to anything before, so it remains to be seen how—and if—he will be able to do that.  My first reaction to Macron’s victory was relief that France had not elected Le Pen.  My second was think of a children’s book that warned against the dangers of thinking that right-wing extremism could be ended by a change in regime.

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Anna, in Kerr’s text, came to love France–but not all the French people loved her “kind”.

The children’s book was one that first taught me, as a child myself, about grey areas in politics.  Holocaust literature in general remains popular with young readers because it is “real” history that ordinary children were involved in—and the good guys and bad guys, especially in the books I read as a child, are obvious.  While YA Holocaust literature was more nuanced about the badness of bad guys, books for the under-twelve set typically allied—well, the allies, with each other.  So the French, Dutch, and British were good, the Germans and Austrians were bad.  (And Jewish people typically were just that—Jewish, not British or German or anything else.)  But Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) presented a more complicated picture—particularly of France.  France, in my nine-year-old understanding of the world, was full of good guys who had unfortunately been “overrun” by the evil Nazis in 1940.  Anna and her family end up in France—though neither as a first nor a last resort—after escaping from Nazi Germany soon after Hitler’s election.  A French newspaper employs Anna’s father, and Anna and her brother Max struggle as refugees to learn the language and fit in—but eventually, “going back to Paris felt more like going home than they would ever have thought possible” (148).  Unfortunately, it does not remain that way.  While many French people help Anna’s family, not all the French are “good guys”.  In fact, their landlady becomes increasingly difficult, eventually lashing out at them by saying, “Hitler knew what he was doing when he got rid of people like you!” (177) and, ominously, “The government should have had more sense than to let you into our country!” (177).  The landlady is French, but sympathizes with the Nazis—not after the fall of France, but several years before it.  My childhood understanding of history fell apart.

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In Carlson’s book, it is the children–not the adults or the institutions–that can see beyond race and build community.

But although my sense of history may have undergone some reorganization, I did not lose the belief that children could play a tangible role in bringing about social and cultural change, or that they could learn how to do this through books.  A less historical—though not by any means ahistorical—picture of French anti-racism can be found in an earlier book, written by American Natalie Savage Carlson who lived in Paris for several years.  A Brother for the Orphelines (1959) may seem, like A Bear Called Paddington, to be set outside time in the unpolitical world of childhood.  But Carlson’s book, published in the midst of the Algerian anti-colonial struggle against France, concerns the rescue of an Algerian orphan by the French orphelines from abandonment.  The well-intentioned orphelines bring the Algerian boy to a “world where the ceiling is leaking and the walls are falling in” (33) because the government doesn’t care about repairing the orphanage; and even the kind orphanage managers squabble over where the “dark-skinned” baby originated.  The orphelines, on the other hand, focus on community, defending their home and “feeling offended at the way the grown-ups were acting as if the baby were different because he was dark-skinned” (32).  Carlson’s text is not problem-free—there are typical orientalist descriptions of the adult Algerians, for one thing—but the orphelines see the Algerian baby as just another child who needs a safe and happy home, and take it upon themselves to secure one for all of them since they can see that the adults and institutions that surround them are either indifferent or prone to casual racism that would divide the orphans into “us” and “them,” deserving (white) children and undeserving (not-white and “foreign”) children.

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Centrist or no, Macron still governs a France that, at least in part, fears the flood at the door.

Kerr and Carlson wrote as adults, and Carlson especially created “ideal” children in her book; but that is not to say that real young people do not understand the consequences of nationalism tied to indifference and racism, whether institutional or individual.  In 1979, the community publisher Centerprise published teenager Savitri Hensman’s book of poems, Flood at the Door, which discusses the racist and anti-immigrant attitudes he faced in 1970s England.  One of these poems, “World War Two,” has echoes of the themes found in both Carlson’s and Kerr’s books.  Hensman writes, “‘We didn’t win to have you here,’/ You say, and flaunt the Union Jack” (8).  The separation between “we” and “you” is a false dichotomy, Hensman argues, when he writes in the next line, “But by your side we fought” (8).  A false dichotomy with real consequences; the poem that follows is about an Asian being stabbed and kicked to death by racists who tell him “to go back” (9) where he came from.  The police do nothing.

While Macron won, Le Pen still received a third of the votes cast.  And this means that while Macron argued that “France” won the election, there is another France that does not agree.  The France of Le Pen, like the right-wing extremist element in America or Britain, is not powerless to affect the day-to-day lives, or indeed the laws and policies, governing ordinary people in France.  That is why activists and children’s authors must continue to fight injustice no matter who is in power—because we didn’t win to have racists here.

May Day: Intersections between BAME Children’s Lit and Workers’ Parties

Today is International Workers’ Day in many countries across the world. It’s a holiday based on an American incident (the Haymarket Riot in 1886), although American celebrate their workers in September, and it’s always been promoted most by the political left: communists, socialists, and even anarchists have frequently staged marches (particularly across Europe) to promote workers’ rights. In the UK, May Day has been given a bank holiday (“early May Bank Holiday” on the first Monday of the month) since 1978. The timing was not accidental; whereas traditionally, May Day had been a festival of spring in the UK, the link with workers’ movements increased after WWII, and became particularly pronounced in Britain with the rise in strikes—especially miners’ strikes—in the early 1970s.

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In Leila Berg’s Fish and Chips for supper, the working class Dad has to worry about putting dinner on the table–but he doesn’t go on strike. Pictures by Richard Rose.

Mainstream children’s literature in the 1970s was still fairly middle class, although the occasional critic—Bob Dixon, Robert Leeson, Aidan Chambers for example—pointed out the missing working-class child in children’s literature. Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series for Macmillan and Aidan Chambers Topliners (also for Macmillan) are two of the series connected with mainstream publishers that tried to address this lack. But although the kids in Berg’s Nippers might have had Fish and Chips for Supper and some of the parents in Chambers’ Topliners were on the dole, these books generally did not depict a radical working class. More often, and in most cases deliberately, the working class families in these books saw Britain’s inequalities as the way things were. Racism (in both Nippers and Topliners) was confronted, but poverty, not so much.

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Brief mentions of Claudia Jones can be found in works for children, such as on Tayo Fatunla’s poster, Our Roots: Celebrating Black History, but full-length discussions of her feminism, anti-racism and community organization are rare.

It was left to independent publishers to not only talk about economic inequality, but highlight the links between race and class. By this I do not mean “if you are Black, then you are automatically poor,” but “people should fight all inequalities in society, because any inequality hurts us all.” This focus on multiple inequalities was something that BAME community leaders had always embraced. Trinidadian-born Claudia Jones, for example, edited the West Indian Gazette, a Black British newspaper, in Brixton; she once said that the Gazette’s “editorial stand is for a united, independent West Indies, full economic, social and political equality and respect for human dignity for West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain, and for peace and friendship between all Commonwealth and world peoples” (interestingly, she wrote about this for Freedomways, an African-American journal, in 1964). Jones would later go on to found the Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of West Indian culture in Britain. Despite Jones’s history of activism and community organization, her life is rarely celebrated in children’s history or biography texts.

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The photograph on the cover of Chris Searle’s All Our Words underscores the notion that ALL British kids matter.

But independent publishers did produce literature that celebrated a tradition of organizing for both workers’ and BAME people’s rights. Most notably, Young World Books (the children’s book division of the communist Liberation Press) highlighted the ways that workers and BAME people could—and did—work together in Britain and elsewhere. Chris Searle’s All Our Words (1986) begins with the line, “It is the ordinary people of this country that make our language” (1). Searle goes on to write essays about ordinary people, including miners, skinheads, Bengalis, Afro-Caribbeans, and East End Jews, using the writing of London schoolchildren who embrace “all our words” and all of London/England. The book includes poetry, short stories and plays written by British schoolchildren from many different backgrounds, as shown through the front cover. Searle emphasizes the ways that communities in Britain can unite and help each other; during the miners’ strike in 1984, “the harassed black communities in Britain reach[ed] out to the striking miners” (104) with money and support. British people should not allow those in power to divide and rule, but should band together in common cause.

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In Maggie Chetty’s Ring Around the Carnival, white and Pakistani Scottish people work together to fight racism

This message of communities helping each other was further reinforced by another Young World publication the following year, Ring Around the Carnival (1987) by Maggie Chetty and with illustrations by David Lockett. Ring Around the Carnival is the story of a Scottish mining community of both white and Pakistani British people who work together to foil a plot by the British White Power movement. The story is more than occasionally didactic; accepting a white miner’s lamp as a reward for her hard work at the end of the book, the main character comments, “I’m very pleased that we stopped the fascists . . . Raj has told me many times that we can do great things if we unite and work together” (72). But the message is not much different than that found in other children’s books—cooperation is a good thing—even if it has a decidedly political point of view.

Further evidence of attempts to unite different groups of people in protest can be found in the fact that Chris Searle dedicated his book to Blair Peach, the white British teacher and anti-racist protestor who was killed during a rally, probably by police (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/apr/27/blair-peach-killed-police-met-report). Peach was part of the many multi-racial anti-fascist organizations that proliferated in the 1970s in response to the National Front and police oppression. Organizations such as Rock Against Racism brought together white skinheads and punks with dreadlocked Black British Rastafarians. Today these kind of alliances are once again visible throughout the world, as people of all communities react to a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, a lack of concern for BAME people’s rights, and fears about restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom and a disregard for truth and science. These concerns need to be represented in today’s children’s literature—and child readers today need to read about the history of community organization. I would love to see Cathhistorical novelist par extraordinaire, write about a character who—as she herself did—participated in Rock Against Racism. Or see Verna Wilkins write a biography of Claudia Jones that includes her feminism as well as her anti-racism and community organization. Injustice to some people is an injustice to all, and on May Day we should think about how to teach our children this.

Panther Cubs? The Black Panthers and Children’s Literature

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This week, Artlyst announced that Tate Modern will be holding a summer exhibition on the art of American Black Power (http://www.artlyst.com/previews/american-black-power-explored-new-tate-summer-exhibition/). Tate Britain’s display of photographs, Stan Firm Inna Inglan, has already begun (http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/display/walk-through-and-spotlight/stan-firm-inna-inglan-black-diaspora-london), and the photograph used on the website about the exhibition by Colin Jones has the phrase Black Power prominently displayed. It is a pity that these two exhibitions are not more obviously linked, but the artistic and cultural adult world in general has been thinking back to the Black Power/Black Panthers era with increasing frequency (including a recent programme on Sky on the British Black Panthers). Children’s literature on the other hand, as I’ve pointed out in other blogposts, tends to avoid images of violence or aggression, especially if either is directed toward the dominant white power structure. So while photos of white people shouting at young African-Americans going to school or police officers threatening Black citizens are common in children’s books about this era, pictures of Black people taking control of a situation aggressively are not. In fact, most recent children’s books that include the Black Panthers go out of their way to take the claws out of the cat, as it were.

Colin Jones The Black House, 571 Holloway Road, London 1976, printed 2012 Tate. Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2016 © Colin Jones Digital Image courtesy of Autograph ABP  Photo by Colin Jones.

As with books about more radical individuals in the Civil Rights and Black Power era, such as Malcolm X and Claudia Jones, there aren’t many that exclusively address the Black Panthers. In fact, try this fun game: type “Black Panthers” into Amazon’s children’s book search (US or UK) and see what comes up. Yes, there are more books about the animal than there are about the movement—a lot more. I went to the library to see if perhaps I could find older books. Most books in the section about African-Americans started with slavery and ended with civil rights (minus the Black Panthers/Black Power) with nothing much inbetween, as if African Americans ceased to exist in the hundred years between the two periods. Civil Rights book covers were telling; the most common cover image for these books was of African-Americans singing, often as part of a multiracial and harmonious group. To be acceptable, Black people must generally appear to be non-threatening to white people.

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Civil rights is often portrayed as harmonious–literally–in children’s lit.

Some of the books on Civil Rights do mention Black Power or the Black Panthers, but carefully. Casey King’s and Linda Barrett-Osborne’s Oh, Freedom! Kids talk about the Civil Rights Movement with the people who made it happen (Scholastic 1998), which also has a cover illustration of singing African-American children, nonetheless includes a remarkably frank exchange between Menelik Coates and his former Black Panther father Paul. Menelik begins by asking his dad if he was “in charge of all the guns”; his father is quick to respond that Black Panthers “rarely carried guns openly” although they did have them in their homes, and that the main focus was uplifting Black communities. Paul Coates may admire Huey Newton for calling police “pigs,” but he concludes his interview with his son by saying, “It’s not about blacks wanting to be superior or treat anyone badly. It’s simply a way for us to be equal in this world”. It is unclear whether this interview is a transcription of an actual event, or if the book’s authors edited or organized the questions and responses, but the interview seems to be designed to both acknowledge and deny the connection between Black Panthers and violence.

This way of beginning with the potential for violence and ending with a peaceful message is common in children’s books. Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement (Capstone 2015) has a chapter on Malcolm X (unsurprisingly titled “By Any Means Necessary”) which begins with Malcolm X quoted calling Martin Luther King Jr a “fool” but which ends with a very different quotation where X says, “Dr. King wants the same thing I want—freedom!” In order to introduce controversial figures—whether famous or not—children’s books remove any threat the individuals might pose. In the end, Mortensen’s book suggests, the radical Malcolm X came around to the viewpoint of non-violence held by Dr. King—a portrayal that at best smooths over the truth, and at worst is a gross misrepresentation of Malcolm X’s viewpoints.

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They were pals, really–and Malcolm X in children’s books has to learn that MLK jr is right. From Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.

Even when a children’s text mentions the aggression associated with the Black Panthers and Black Power, it is often euphemized, countered or contradicted by other elements of the text. Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement (Core 2014) uses both softening techniques and textual design to deflect any inference that violence or direct opposition to government and institutional policies had a positive effect on power gained by African-Americans. Like other texts, the Rissman description begins with the “strong actions” taken to achieve change, but concludes that “the majority of black power movement activities were nonviolent” (27), again both acknowledging and denying Black Panther militancy. The chapter title, however, refutes the idea that strong action was successful; and the photographic illustration shows African-Americans looting and rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (which can only indirectly be connected to either Black Power or the Black Panthers). The people in the photograph do not appear powerful; rather, the opposite. The book’s design has the overall effect of raising doubt about the efficacy of Black Power and Black Panthers as positive forces within and for the African-American community on the very page it discusses their “strong” actions.

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Were the Black Panthers “strong” if they caused people to act like this? Textual design guides the reader to think not. From Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement.

The embrace of non-violence by authors of books about Black Power may seem just the result of the intended audience for these books; children are not “supposed” to read about violence, ostensibly because it might frighten them. Children’s nonfiction, however, often includes violence, aggression and damage to government property; just look at any text about the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party is not portrayed as colonists looting private property, and the minutemen (who never, by the way, feed any children breakfast) are not brought round to peacefully protesting the monarchy. In England, Guy Fawkes Day is a holiday, but there aren’t any kids’ books (that I know of) about the Bradford Twelve. The fact that children’s books portray Black Panthers/Black Power organizations as either violent but ineffectual or initially violent but later allied with/embracing non-violence suggests that the author’s/publisher’s motive has more to do with their own fears than that of the child reader’s, and their need to ensure that readers dismiss the potential attraction of power for oppressed people found in movements like the Black Panthers.